LGBT

Facebook and Uncanny Identity

I’m sitting in a meeting at the LGBT Resource Center. It’s Monday night, a few weeks past now. They have a large comfy couch, free pizza, brightly colored artwork on the walls, posters for other events. It’s only six in the evening, but I’m exhausted. Not the I-didn’t-get-enough-sleep-because-coursework kind of tired, but the soul-weary exhaustion that has been my constant companion since November. I’ve tried to put it into words, what I’m feeling. There’s spoon theory, or empathy overload, but neither of those encompasses what I’m feeling now. I’ve dealt with chronic depression and anxiety my entire adult life, and it’s never been like this before, not to this extent and not for this long. So I’m sitting in a meeting for Queer-folk and allies on campus, hoping that being around some other humans where I don’t have to appear fully competent and on top of things will help.

They ask us to share a rough spot and a bright spot from our week. Rough spot, for the first time in a while, is a quick answer for me. Usually, it’s been a toss-up between any number of novel and horrifying developments, but this week it’s simple: The rough spot was turning on my phone and seeing the repeal of bathroom protection for Transgender students. I cried, staring at my phone, at the headline that one of the default news apps decided to plaster across my unlock screen. I cried for the teenagers who will face even more bullying in their school halls, I cried over the lives that will be lost because it’s not really about bathrooms but about basic humanity and decency, I cried over the level of ignorance and hate that would drive someone to make such a ruling about a group of marginalized young people who we should all be working to protect. When I shared my sadness, the faces in the room mirrored back what I imagine mine looks like now on a daily basis, weary sadness.

Finding a bright spot has become incredibly simple for me over the past few months. Did I get out of bed? Did I make it through the ten minutes of time I allot myself each morning to check out my social media and news apps to see what latest violence has been done against marginalized groups? Did I feed myself? Did I attend or teach class? Those actions are a bright spot each day, moments when I didn’t let despair sit on my chest like too-deep water. These moments of caring for myself, for my queer body in this hostile environment, are small, empowering moments of radical resistance in my day-to-day. I showed up. It’s my bright spot. There are nods and half-smiles in response.

As we circle the room, the concerns change: several foreign students are concerned about the attitudes toward LGBTQIA+ individuals in their home countries. What might it mean for them to be denied a job in the U.S. after completing their degree? Another student is struggling with a family member who purposefully misgenders them and says that they will always be their dead gender (I can’t help but hear the rhetoric surrounding the bathroom bill echoing through my head). Another student is concerned about the example of Gay-ness presented by Breitbart editor, Milo Yiannopoulus, the virulently hateful and, allegedly, pedophilic poster-child for acceptable Alt-Right Queerness. The concerns are different. The exhaustion is the same.

Each person in this room is exhausted, emotionally empty, rattled and just a few moments from tears. But why?

***

I’ve been trying to sort it out since late-December, reading the think-pieces and the status updates from my friends, attending rallies and marches and poster-making sessions. The sadness and tired hangs everywhere, but I still couldn’t figure it out. So I did what so many academics do, I compartmentalized it, allowed that part of my mind to fill up with pertinent data, waited for a late night “Ah-hah” moment when it finally clicked. It didn’t. I moved on, left it to simmer in some back part of my brain, focused on reading theorists, and grading essays, and getting out of bed in the morning. I left the sadness and its answer for a different day.

I started listening to musicals. I’ve been a bit behind the curve, so Hamilton was a new and heart-wrenching beauty in my life. I wept the first time I listened to the soundtrack. It was good to cry.

Next, my brother suggested I listen to the soundtrack for Fun Home. (He blessedly warned me that it might hit close to home in some ways. He was right.) I listened to Alison Bechdel’s coming-out story about her life again, this time accompanied by music instead of the panels of the graphic novel where I first encountered it. I remember watching a video of Bechdel creating one of those panels, taking Polaroid pictures of herself to use as reference. The time and effort that went into each panel was astonishing. The music from the play recreated that experience of her writing and drawing the graphic novel, that astonishment and awe. I was hooked.

After spending the majority of late-January and February listening to the soundtrack on repeat, a question popped into my head. What was it like for Bechdel to see her own life played out on stage in front of her? Luckily, Alyssa Abbott asked the same thing of Bechdel shortly after the show’s first performance in 2013 in an interview for The Atlantic (which can be found here. Two statements from Bechdel struck me as she described her experience of seeing the show: she described seeing her own life on stage as “very strange and surreal” and also described the experience of seeing the show with her brother’s and aunt—“There were no words. We just let it wash over us.” I couldn’t peg down why those statements struck me as particularly important, but I stored them away in the random bits of knowledge part of my brain that may one day make me a Jeopardy star.

***

Their importance came a week ago, when discussing a project for one of my classes involving the subject of the uncanny. Stephen King describes terror as “when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute.” This description has been used by Lucy Hunter, a contributing editor for Critic magazine out of the Otago University Students’ Association, in her article “Journey into “The Uncanny Valley”” (which you can visit here). When discussing experiences of the uncanny, Hunter describes the “Uncanny” as “the sensation of something being both strange and familiar. It helps explain the reason why some things scare us, while others just creep us out. The uncanny is not simply a matter of the mysterious, bizarre, or frightening: it involves a kind of duplicity (both in likeness and deception) within the familiar. A disturbance of the familiar.”

Finally, with this idea of the uncanny bouncing around in my head, it all clicked. Alison Bechdel’s statements about watching the play of her life had hit me because she described it as “very strange and surreal,” and experience that had to “wash over” her and her family. These were moments when the familiar elements of her life has been disturbed, replaced by the interpretation of the playwright and the actors and the musicians, a strong resemblance, but not the same. This was my every day experience looking at the headlines on my phone or the posts on my Facebook wall. The headlines identified me: “Millennials say ‘Not My President’,” “Trump Repeals Obama-Era Transgender Protections,” “Radical Left Professors Poison University Campuses.” These were terms I had used for myself, modes of constructing who I was, but they had replaced me in the narrative. These headlines had walked into my house, taken me out and left a replica in my place, an ill-informed idealist, a supposed predator, a target for hate and ire.

They came so quickly, these stories of horrific ignorance and self-centered greed, invading every moment of my life, from my Facebook wall, to my classroom discussions, to chats with colleagues and mentors in the halls. Me, who I had thought of myself as, was existing out there somewhere, an uncanny version for people to then assign back on to me with the same words I had used as a method of empowerment and self-realization. But these things that they said were not me. I may be an empathic idealist, but I pride myself in remaining informed, I am not a predator, I am kind and compassionate, I am not a rabid automaton of Leftist-rhetoric set on indoctrinating young minds in my classroom, I am a hard-working teacher who values pedagogy and the success and growth of my students. These headlines made a straw man of me, dressed it in my clothes, and trampled it to bits with their rhetoric, and I could not stand as my own witness. I could only offer my testimony in noxious comment sections and wait for the flame-war to ensue.

I was left to feel the weight of these events, so far outside my realm of immediate influence, wash over me with no time to process. Every event comes now in a rapid fire stream, so many executive orders, and bills before Congress, and life-shattering decisions tossed about like pawns in a game of Chess, meant for sacrifice and violence.

***

 The night at the LGBT Resource Center provided some very essential insight for me.

The media available to me for self-expression had been insufficient. Posts about my experiences on social media were met with affirmations from my colleagues and friends, who felt the same way, and virulent declarations of degradation from others; I should “grow up,” my life “sure must have been easy if this Presidential election is enough to break [me],” and “I sure hope you never have to face any real hardship in your life.”

My attempts to witness about the trauma of existing in this moment felt hollow. How do you provide testimony about a violence that exists not in blood spilled but in existence denied? Laverne Cox put it so much more pointedly than I had been able to when speaking about what the bathroom bill meant for transgender people on MSNBC: “When trans people can’t access public bathrooms we can’t go to school effectively, go to work effectively, access health-care facilities — it’s about us existing in public space,” she said. “And those who oppose trans people having access to the facilities consistent with how we identify know that all the things they claim don’t actually happen. It’s really about us not existing — about erasing trans people.”

I felt not only useless to witness for myself, but useless to help those who are without voice in this moment. Not all trauma is equivalent. I am in a place of privilege where my white skin, my social class, my vocation, my regional location, and even my ability to still pass as female in public spaces has granted me protections that are not available to so many others who exist in a far more marginalized space than myself. I want to make space for them, to open the floor and hold the haters at bay and let them scream out their truths about themselves, witnessing to their own trauma and terror in a country that has robbed them of their right to humanity and existence.

In this political moment, there has been both erasure and replacement of me as a non-binary, trans, millennial in the education field. And until that night at the LGBT Resource Center, I had had no way to witness about it in a way that felt real, to talk to others who had the same expressions on their faces that greeted me in the mirror before I plastered a smile on my face each morning. But in that room, it started to come together, the kernel of knowledge in the swirl of emotion and struggling thoughts. In that room, I could hold space for others, I could be the listening ear that is so essential for those testifying about their experiences. In that room, I could witness while others held space for me.

***

So what does it all mean? I’m living in a strange world where my life is related back to me and my value and identity determined by people in rooms hundreds of miles from me, and then blasted out over the media that permeates my life. It’s uncanny, and terrifying, and emotionally exhausting, yes, but I’ve got a framework for it now, a way of understanding where this feeling comes from, for me at least. And for me, as a scholar, having that framework to understand is usually my first step to finding a solution.


Hillarie ‘Rhyse’ Curtis is a Ph.D. student at Syracuse University where she studies (and occasionally writes about) queer narratives, masculinity, trauma, war, and fan fiction, among other things. 

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Sex on the (Game) Table (18 Sept. 2015)

I’m going to pivot here from the past two weeks, away from 2000 word theoretical arguments and critical close readings to something a little bit looser. In the process, I also hope to turn away from the world of video games for a little while and towards the cardboard world of the table top. If you’ve been into your local Barnes & Noble on any given day in the past few years, you may have noticed the sudden appearance of board games where before there were only college application guides and Moleskine notebooks. This, I promise, is not just indicative of B&N’s own post-codex marketing strategies. They say we are in the middle of a board game renaissance, a golden age of plastic figures, complicated rulebooks, and wooden cubes, and that makes me one happy little nerd.

Incidentally, it also makes me one happy little student of sex and gender politics.

For scholars of gender and sex in a society like ours that has, for much of its history, depended on the institutions of marriage and family to generate a dominant source of individual and corporate identity, understanding the way these institutions work, their social effect, and the conditions under which they break down is essential. This goes doubly true for those who have been marginalized or harmed over and over by these deeply engrained institutions. If you were a film scholar with an interest in sex and gender politics, you’d likely spend time examining the visual representations of familial love, coded femininity, or censored scenes of illicit sexuality. Likewise, were you to take Victorian literature as your subject, you’d probably reading all of Foucault, historicizing sexual practices of the 19th century British subject, while close reading Dickens for signs of the emerging middle class family unit.

Rather, games are machines, encapsulated collections of rules that produce incredible pseudo-fictional experiences when activated by players. Games are adept at modeling the social and political systems in which we already live. This is as true of board games as video games, and it is why the resurgence of board games ought to excite anyone with even a passing interest in the operation of sex and gender in Western culture. Where films and books represent gender and sex ideologies by conventions of narration, image, and characterization, board games offer up for examination the very systems within which these ideologies circulate. This allows players to discover, interact with, and even enact models of those systems, opening institutions like marriage and the family up to a different and (dare I say it?) fun kind of analysis.

So, as both an indulgence of my nerdy enthusiasm for tabletop gaming and an instance of the capacity of board games to represent the dynamics of gender, sex, marriage, and the family, I offer below a few examples for your consideration.

agricola

Photo Credit to Board Game Point of View on boardgamegeek.com

Agricola

Agricola is an intimidating beast of a game to the uninitiated. It’s a quintessential example of the “Euro” style board game: relatively little direct player interaction, multiple paths to victory, heaps of victory points to be won, and copious wooden blocks. In this game, players take responsibility for small 17th century farmsteads, competing with each other to establish the most diverse, fruitful farm. On their turns, players place one of two “workers” from their farm board on one of the action spaces in the shared, central board. Being a 17th century farm, the labor is pre-industrial which means your “workers” are actually husband and wife. This is a case of pure abstraction in terms of representation; the agrarian couple are in fact nothing more than flat wooden discs. They have no visible gender difference, nor are they functionally different with respect to the kinds of actions each one can take. If they are a heterosexual couple as the game’s rulebook assures us they are, there are no representational markers to support such a case. However, as a game of Agricola plays out, two new action spaces open up, each called “Family Growth.” Here, players can assign one of their workers (presumably the wife) who then returns home to the farm bearing a third wooden disc – a child. The arrival of a new child is one of the most exciting events Agricola can offer players, not however because of the miracle of childbirth, but because it means that player now has one more worker that can be sent into the fields, giving them a tremendous competitive edge over her opponents. This wooden child seems to verify that yes, indeed, the first two workers were indeed man and wife, but after the child’s arrival, all three workers once again melt into interchangeability. These bodies are as abstracted, as ungendered as you might imagine – and yet the game’s mechanics testify to the sex that is nevertheless always at the core of a winning strategy. Agricola then offers players a family unit rooted in heterosexual marriage, but radically flattened of sexual difference by the demands of production. Agricola strips marriage and sex down to its most basic, agrarian, function: securing resources, staving off starvation, and producing enough surplus to overshadow your neighboring farms.

Village

Photo Credit to Chun Yian on boardgamegeek.com

Village

Village is another game set in the pre-industrial past, as well as another example of a Euro game with an emphasis on the family unit. However, where Agricola explores the relationship between familial fertility and productivity, Village explores the relationship between family legacy, death, and cross generational ties. More mechanically complex than Agricola, Village makes use of some similar ideas: players have a homestead board from which they place family members onto a central action board and it’s possible for players to “have babies” in order to generate more workers. However, these workers are each labeled with a number, 1-4, indicating to which generation they belong. Players place their workers onto the various actionable spaces of the main board, and in many cases, leave them there, for the spaces are occupations that their workers hold until they die. Say you’re playing Village and you need to make a wagon to sell at market. You could pay a hefty price in various resources and gold or, if you have a worker at the wainwright location, you could simply spend a bit of time, the game’s third spendable commodity. As players spend time, however, workers from the older generations begin to die off. Workers, on the occasion of their deaths, are sent to graves that match their lifelong occupation and in this way are committed to the village’s book of records, memorialized forever after. However, should the limited number of places for a worker’s given occupation be filled up, they are sent unceremoniously into an unmarked grave, forgotten forever and, crucially, giving the player no points. Rather than incentivize the growing accumulation of labor as Agricola does, Village encourages players to look forward to the proper memorialization of death, for it is in this memorialization that the legacy of their family is secured against those of their opponents. Tellingly, the rulebook calls the score “Prestige Points.” It is expressly for the garnering of that prestige that the family unit exists in the world of Village.

consentacle

And now for something completely different…

Consentacle

In a very sharp turn away from the pastoral, picturesque worlds of Agricola and Village, I’d like to introduce you to Consentacle, a game by designer, Naomi Clark that is, as of yet, still unpublished. Unlike the previous two games which you can order right off of Amazon, Consentacle was never intended to be a mass market game. This game takes as its subject the erotic encounter between a young, “Curious Human” and a rather expressive “Tentacled Alien.” Consentacle is all about the complex negotiation of sexual consent as players work together to generate Trust, gain Satisfaction, and hopefully, build Intimacy between their wildly disparate characters. Visually, the Curious Human and Tentacled Monster are as different as can be, though any potential sense of horror that you might expect is mitigated by a charming, Jet Set Radio Future, comic-y art style. Mechanically, this difference is reinforced by limiting communication between players as they work toward a common goal, encouraging a sort of blind, tentative play style. On their turns, players simultaneously play cards like “WINK,” “BITE,” “STROKE,” or “ENVELOP,” trying to create combinations that lead the Curious Human and Tentacled Alien into a memorable erotic encounter. I say memorable because the goal of the game isn’t solely to achieve Satisfaction but to transmute that Satisfaction into something more. Satisfaction is actually only the middle step along the road, a sort of exchange gate through which Trust must pass in order to become Intimacy. This alchemy whereby Satisfaction transforms Trust into Alchemy is the key to Consentacle’s representation of sex, not as an end to itself, nor as the component of some larger, marital or familial institution, but as a crucial form of relation that bridges the wide gulf between individuals. In a representational fiction that draws explicitly from an erotics of difference that is often figured as inherently violent (feel free to Google tentacle porn if you’ve missed the allusion), Consentacle removes the power inequities that seemed to be inherent in an encounter between ingénue and monster and replaces them with the erotic frisson of cooperative consent. In other words, sex is fun! And, when sex is properly fun, it is egalitarian, given over to a free exploration of difference, and the magical reagent that brings Intimacy where before there was only solitude.

and then we held hands

Photo credit to Andrew Tullsen on boardgamegeek.com

…and then we held hands

I’ll wrap up with another cooperative game where players must cope with limited communication and blind play in order to achieve a relational end. In …and then we held hands, two players take on the roles of lovers who have reached a point of crisis in their relationship. The nature of this crisis is left to the imagination, but in order to resolve it, players must navigate their pawns across colored spaces on a board arranged in concentric circles. As players discard emotion cards from either their hand or their partner’s, they gradually try to move toward the center of these circles, achieving balance and resolving their relationship in the process. …and then we held hands, is a quiet, deeply abstracted game, unlike Consentacle, and yet an intensely evocative one. The emotions in the game are represented by one of four colors that make up the board’s spaces as well as the emotion cards in player’s hands. Discarding the emotion cards suggests the emergence of feeling in the course of discussion or argument between two lovers and, correspondingly, it affects the position of the player’s pawn. If players handle each other’s (and their own!) emotions appropriately, they slowly make progress toward each other – but should they ignore the feelings in play they risk running their pawn into an impossible corner, unable to move within the context of that relationship anymore. Again, like in Agricola, …and then we held hands, seems gender agnostic, though it also seems to invite players to approach the game as a couple, extra-diegetically. And indeed, the game has been discussed in various contexts online as a “couple’s game”. However, the absence of representational gender here suggests, like Consentacle, an egalitarian sort of cooperation, one that requires sympathy, the reading of body language, and careful consideration of your partner’s state of mind. Where Consentacle is all playful eroticism, however, …and then we held hands plays more like a meditative, couples’ therapy session. The mechanics here are simple and though abstracted, clearly linked to ideologies of egalitarian coupling. It is exactly that abstraction, however, that renders …and then we held hands so open to projection. This is a game, it seems, in which players are invited to invest their own relational crises and contemplate for thirty minutes how they can better cope with the complex roil of emotions that come with the sexual territory.

And that’s it for now! This was just a very cursory overview of how board games offer small windows on the way our society has conceived of sex, marriage, and gender. So much more could be said about each of these games and the many others that I don’t have room to mention. If we really are in the middle of a board game renaissance, I hope we can recognize their value as microcosms of our own social lives as gendered, sexual bodies.


Jordan Wood is a Ph.D student in the Syracuse University English department where he studies games, sexuality, and queer theory. He lives with two cats and is terrible at side scrolling games. Go Bills.

Part 2: Critical Witching (11 Sept. 2015)

We started talking last week about CD Projekt RED’s enormous, dark fantasy role playing game, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. I promised we’d try to salvage something useful out of the kerfuffle over Polygon’s “pompous,” gender-concerned review, something that might highlight some deficiencies in the way we think about games as representational works and, in turn, might also provide a way to navigate the difficult terrain between (still rare) progressive-ish critiques of gender in the popular gaming press and reactionary, masculinist responses from the fans. Before we dig in, let’s make one thing clear: the object here is neither to “rescue” The Witcher 3 from either liberal critique or dubious fandom, nor is it to validate the defensive position of some anti-feminist gamers. Rather, I take that defensive posture toward political criticism of The Witcher 3 (or really any other favored game) as an occasion to rethink what it means to intersect with sex and gender within the social fiction of a game. Pointing out that the women characters wear skimpy clothes or that the main characters represent a raging male power fantasy is simply no longer a sufficient observation to account for the complex sexual politics often at work in these games – and it really hasn’t been for a long time.

So let’s get to it then.

In The Witcher 3, players take on the role of Geralt of Rivia, the eponymous witcher, a sort of professional monster hit man who roams the Northern Kingdoms slaying all manner of mythological creatures for money. As a witcher, Geralt is endowed with a number of special characteristics that both aid him in his pursuits and set him apart as a social pariah. Witchers all undergo a mutation process early in their lives that grants them superhuman strength, long life, heightened senses, and a remarkable resilience to poisons. This mutation also marks them physically, giving them slit, yellow cat-like eyes which, for better or worse, makes them instantly recognizable to the rest of the Northern Kingdoms’ citizens. Witchers occupy a weird, liminal position in their world. The many citizens of the Northern Kingdoms depend on witchers to protect them against a wildly dangerous world full of succubi, werewolves, ghosts, and far, far worse. However those same citizens regard witchers with enormous suspicion, seeing in them some of the monstrosity that they pay witchers to protect them from. Witchers seem to be predominantly male and have a reputation for being quite randy, a fact that is often alluded to in the series’ many jokes about their trademark sterility. Crucially, witchers also maintain a level of neutrality in their political surroundings.

Geralt Tassels

The Tassles are not part of that political neutrality.

The sorceresses of the Northern Kingdoms run socially parallel to the witchers. These loosely associated women wield incredible magical power and often serve as advisers to kings and nobles, ensuring that they occupy a central place in their world’s politics and cultural imagination. Though powerful, The Witcher 3 sees the sorceresses in a dangerous position, on the run from a new kingly edict proclaiming that all “freaks” should be captured, tortured, and burned. Here The Witcher 3 draws explicitly on the long history of persecuting socially (and sexually) powerful women as outsiders whose very existence threatens established patriarchal rule.

The tumultuous human civilization of The Witcher 3 wholly depends upon the careful management of the disruptive energies manifested by figures like witchers, sorceresses, monsters, non-humans, and other nasties that refuse to play nice with the Northern Kingdom’s competing expansionist agendas. Paradoxically, the people of the Northern Kingdoms depend on their witchers and sorceresses to keep monstrous threats at bay. This is what constitutes their liminal position: they are both the guarantors against social disintegration and the reminders that no such guarantee is even possible. The kingdoms of The Witcher 3 can neither live with their sorceresses and witchers, nor can they live without them.

They are, in other words, sort of queer. Their relative queerness is legible by the light of The Witcher 3’s iconic consolidation of dysfunctional, fractious powers (the ruined country of Novigrad, the bloody Chapel of the Eternal Flame, the prejudiced and violent Redanian army, etc.) into flawed and often abusive male figureheads (The Redanian king, for instance). By reading both the witchers and the sorceresses as dangerous yet necessary outsiders to these male-driven political economies it becomes possible to read the apparently gratuitous costumes that Keira Metz and Tris Merigold sometimes wear as something in excess of simple, hetero-masculinist voyeurism. Likewise, and more specifically to the point of this post, it re-works the player’s role as Geralt of Rivia into the unique position of a man who is simultaneously the beneficiary of and counterpoint to patriarchal rule. This positioning is the key to a more complex reading of The Witcher 3’s gender politics.

And now, finally, we can turn to the Bloody Baron.

bloodybaron1

Finally.

Philip Strenger, aka, the Bloody Baron, holds power in Velen, a swampy expanse of a land full of peasants, monsters, and old, old magic. He is both a grizzled veteran of several wars and a tired old man who has now switched allegiances in order to secure for himself a more or less comfortable retirement in the ruling seat of Crow’s Perch, a rather large and somewhat dingy village in the north. Players encounter him when Geralt follows up on a rumor that Ciri was spotted in the streets of Crow’s Perch. Often drunk and with a reputation for violence, it’s a surprise to Geralt (and to me as I played) that the old warlord treats the witcher with respect and congeniality. Geralt and the Baron hit it off splendidly in fact, seeming to understand each other immediately as professionals, men of both action and simplicity. Almost immediately, Geralt and Strenger settle in for a quick, friendly game of Gwent.

Of course, as you might expect from a role playing game, the Baron asks Geralt a favor before he discloses anything about Ciri’s whereabouts. The Baron’s wife and daughter have disappeared and he needs Geralt to put his tracking skills to work. The Baron seems at first totally ignorant as to the cause of his family’s disappearance, but player’s soon find signs of an abusive relationship as they discover evidence of a drunken brawl in the Baron’s bedchambers, including holes in the wall that had been hastily covered up. As players investigate further it becomes clear that Mr. Strenger was indeed physically abusive to his wife and emotionally abusive to his daughter, so much so that his wife apparently sought out the aid of a local shaman in the form of a protection amulet. Though players have a variety of dialogue options to choose from whenever Geralt interacts with other characters, all of the available choices when confronting the Baron suggest some degree of anger and disappointment in his behavior, as players suddenly find themselves sitting in a seat of judgment. When it turns out that the Baron’s wife was pregnant and it seems as though the last beating caused her to miscarry, the Baron hits his lowest point.

From here it seems like the story will play out tragically, but conventionally. The Baron solicits the witcher’s sympathy by pleading that he is indeed a changed man, Geralt would then finally track down the broken man’s family down leading to their eventual restoration, and a flawed man finds redemption in the restoration of the ideal family. So far, so patriarchal. Things, however, do not follow such an easy script.

The Bloody Baron does indeed plead his transformation, but should players reject that plea (as, it is crucial to note, they are merely given the option to do), the Baron turns combative, arguing that Geralt has no idea what it’s like to be married, what it is like to have a wife who nags, or what it’s like to manage a family. Then, when it becomes clear that the protective amulet Strenger’s wife procured was because, in a desperate refusal to have another child by the Bloody Baron, she had sought out an abortion from three mysterious, ancient witches.

witches of crookbackbog

These women deserve their own series of posts.

In return, the witches sapped all the poor woman’s strength and placed her under magical bondage that the amulet kept at bay. Sympathetic to the woman’s plight, Geralt here finds himself in a familiar position: filled with disdain for the abusive men that constantly find their way to power, and yet dependent on them for his own goals. And so, Geralt keeps on in his liminal position, finding at best a sense of distant pity for the Bloody Baron in place of the camaraderie that was there before. And players, sutured as they are to Geralt as their avatar, are likewise placed in a position of critical exteriority to the male-dominated networks of power that underpin human civilization in the Northern Kingdoms.

You might think, “sure that’s all well and good, but isn’t The Witcher 3 mostly about killing nasty things with swords?” And you’d be right. Which is why the most remarkable thing about The Witcher 3’s episode with the Bloody Baron is the way Geralt’s social positioning and his professional skills come together to articulate the game’s clearest critique of an abusive, power hungry patriarchy. As I said at the top of the post, Geralt, like all witchers, is a professional – and his profession is monster slaying. The rich fantasy setting of The Witcher 3 allows for the traumatic fruit of the Bloody Baron’s dominance to achieve literal monstrosity, the likes of which Geralt can address head on. And in this case, the sins of the Baron return to him in the form of a Botchling.

Botchlings are the horrifying result of an unwanted infant having died without being given a “proper” burial or name. They return in the form of mutilated fetuses who prey on the strength of sleeping mothers. They are the vengeful detritus of the failed family. And as it turns out, one of them haunts the Baron. It of course falls to Geralt, and the player, to exorcise this particularly nasty reminder of Strenger’s effect on his family. This scenario can end in one of two ways: with a really difficult fight against the monstrously transformed botchling or with a drawn out, emotionally draining ritual that transforms the botchling into a lubberkin, a kind of guardian spirit who watches over the household. In the former scenario, Geralt is once again relegated to the role of the necessary but disavowed monster who manages the disruptive energies of a world run by mad men. In the latter, however, Geralt forces the Bloody Baron to intimately come to terms with the suffering he has caused and even displaces him from the position of protectorate of the house, replacing him with the lubberkin, a constant reminder of the Baron’s own destructive life. The Baron must pick up, hold, embrace, name, and bury the botchling over the course of a harrowing night while Geralt ensures every step is taken perfectly. This video depicts the opening steps of the scene:

Though Geralt goes on to discover the whereabouts and well-being of the rest of the Strenger family, this is the pivotal moment where players are most explicitly positioned agents of confrontation and transformation in this “oppressively misogynist” world. Rather than seeking an end to the Bloody Baron’s violence that results in his restoration as patriarch of a happy home, The Witcher 3 gives players one of two rather different outcomes. Either Geralt begrudgingly sweeps misogynist violence under the rug, allowing the Baron to stew in further resolute bitterness, or, he enforces from his liminal position a reckoning between patriarch and patriarchal trauma.

We definitely got into the weeds here, I know, but if you’ve stuck through I’m hoping that I’ve shown a little bit of how we might re-conceive our accounting of gender, misogyny, violence, and sexuality in video games. I mentioned before that criticizing the sexualized portrayals of women or the lack of any non-heteronormative protagonists are no longer enough. I do believe these things are still necessary. As it should be clear to anyone who played The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, my analysis on this one small episode leaves a host of other vexed sex and gender representations unexamined. At every point however, and especially in the case of the Bloody Baron, The Witcher 3 insists that its players retain a critical eye toward its misogynist world. Without that distance, Geralt could simply not be The Witcher that his world needs.


Jordan Wood is a Ph.D student in the Syracuse University English department where he studies games, sexuality, and queer theory. He lives with two cats and is terrible at side scrolling games. Go Bills.

PLAYING, WATCHING, WANTING: A SUMMER IN REVIEW (4 Sept. 2015)

PART 1 – ICKY WITCHER (4 Sept. 2015)

By the time you read this it will have been September for at least a few days. This means, undoubtedly, an endless stream of friends asking what we did this summer. I, having been well trained in the art of back-to-school vacation reporting, dutifully explain that I spent the whole summer preparing for my qualifying exams. This entails reading through 20 books on queer theory, 20 more books in game studies, watching 40 or so films related to LGBT history and queer representation, and playing through 40 or so video games. And yet, at the end of the summer I still wonder if in all of this reading, watching, and playing I’ve learned anything at all. I should probably try to see if knowledge has happened and then share that knowledge with some other people to see if they think it’s knowledge, too. Maybe a four week series of blogposts right at the end of the summer – a kind of Summer In Review of games, gender, sex, and film. Give it a catchy title. Sure.

PLAYING, WATCHING, WANTING: A SUMMER IN REVIEW. PART 1 – ICKY WITCHER

Let’s start by thinking about a guy provocatively named the Bloody Baron. Philip Strenger, a.k.a., the Bloody Baron, is a key character in the opening third of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (2015, Xbox One, PS4, PC), a sprawling role playing game by Polish game studio, CD Projket RED. This game is massive. Wild Hunt combines the expansive environment of Bethesda’s Skyrim with the deep characterization and romantic interludes of Bioware’s Mass Effect series, and throws in an entirely original trading card game, complete with factions and gold foil cards for good measure.

Witcher3Sprawling

(Really, really sprawling)

However, it also introduces players to a terribly cruel world. Nobles squabble for control over their small corner of the world, always seeking to expand that corner by whatever means necessary, and Wild Hunt is unflinching in its depiction of how these squabbles disenfranchise the less well-off citizens of the Northern Kingdoms. The Bloody Baron, however, tells us the most about what we expect from our games, our games press, and the way sex and patriarchal oppression operate in video games.

Before we get to that, let’s backtrack.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt launched just before this summer started. It was hotly anticipated by nearly every gaming media outlet and was immediately met upon release with virtually universal critical and popular acclaim. CD Projekt RED had an enormous success on their hands and the adoration of millions of fans due to fan-friendly business practices like weekly installments of free downloadable content (DLC) and frequent, personal communication with a demographic known for being extraordinary fickle. This rabid affection explains at least some of the intense anger that fans launched at Arthur Gies’ review of The Witcher 3 for Polygon.com.

In this largely positive review, Gies still expressed reservations about the constant and often gruesome violence to which women are subjected in The Witcher 3. Gies calls “the world CD Projekt has created […] oppressively misogynist,” and, though he acknowledges that the game deals with this misogyny directly, Gies also points out that the game seems to, at least a little, relish the many opportunities to depict women in peril. As Gies puts it, the world of The Witcher 3 has many women characters who struggle mightily – and not always in vain – against a viciously oppressive society, but then the game “kills them, over and over.

As you might expect in a post-but-not-at-all-post #GamerGate world, a review score of 8 out of 10 for a beloved game is an outrage, doubly so since the score seemed to rest on the objections of an SJW (Social Justice Warrior for those not in the know). Gies had previously been pilloried for his similarly positive yet hesitant review of Bayonetta 2 (2014, Wii U) and the gaming masses seemed ready to put him to the stocks again for this second, even more egregious sin. Fans of The Witcher 3 took to their blogs, message boards, and online communities to criticize Gies and Polygon for their review. One fan’s response characterizes the overall backlash quite well:

“Polygon is nothing but jaded old journalists with absolutely no love for gaming anymore. I lost respect for them years ago.”

Another fan in the same thread had this to say:

“The world in The Witcher is supposed to be portrayed as brutal and unfair. Racism, sexism, and the works are all prevalent. It just looks so silly to throw that stuff around in a review. It’s Polygon trying to sound cerebral, and coming off more as pompous.”

Even more damning, Adrian Chmielarz, co-owner and creative director of small indie studio The Astronauts and developer of such cult hit games as Painkiller (2004) and Bulletstorm (2011) wrote a long, scathing blog post calling Gies’ piece, among other things, “poisonous to the industry,” and an example of toxic journalistic incompetence endemic to the game review industry.

If you’ve been at all familiar with the #GamerGate saga over the past year (and if you’re not, I recommend this article from Ars Technica for a taste), then these objections might sound familiar to you. They have that je ne sais quoi of reactionary masculinist discourse that seems to characterize so much of online reddit/chan/gaming culture right now.

However there is something in the fan response to Gies’ review that, despite its histrionic tone and defensive articulation, warrants attention.

Witcher3GlitchHead

(In the same way that this glitched polygon warrants attention)

Let us grant Gies’ criticism that the world of The Witcher 3 is ruthlessly misogynist (it is) and that the game itself seems to at least, in some way, revel in women’s suffering, all the while dressing its many prominent women characters in laughably sexy costumes (it does). For sure, there is plenty to feel icky about in The Witcher 3. The question that Gies does not get to though, and the question that I think his critics in some way articulate, is this: does the game itself feel icky about its content? Or, put another way, does Wild Hunt encourage players to maintain or develop a critical perspective on a patriarchal society that often mirrors our own?

The answer, I think, is a resounding “yes.” Mostly anyways. As players assume the mantle of the Witcher himself, Geralt of Rivia, they also take on a social role that places them as both an outsider to and beneficiary of Wild Hunt’s “oppressively misogynist” world. Along with this unique point of player identification, The Witcher 3 offers (via its fantasy narrative and iconography) a range of viscerally-realized metaphors that, at times, make the player’s role of killing the monsters of the Northern Kingdom seem uncannily like a crusade against the patriarchy.

Whether The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt makes players complicit in a virtual Malleus Maleficarum or waltzes them around in the boots of a strangely familiar white knight, it is the episode with the Bloody Baron – drunkard, wife-beater, war hero, contrite father – that best exposes the complexities of gender and sexuality at work here. The reactionaries against Gies’ review may not have had what I argue in mind, but if gaming is ever going to move out of its current atmosphere of division, exclusion, and prejudice, then we need to work harder than Gies’ review does at understanding how games go about their representational business. Next week, I’ll try to do just that with the story of Geralt of Rivia and the Bloody Baron of Novigrad.


Jordan Wood is a Ph.D student in the Syracuse University English department where he studies games, sexuality, and queer theory. He lives with two cats and is terrible at side scrolling games. Go Bills.

Coda: Asexual Awareness Week and the Future of Queer Theory

Last week, I completed the Safer People, Safer Spaces training my university offers to learn better ways to be an ally, whether you’re a member or a supporter of the queer community. One of the activities we did involved matching vocabulary words (like lesbian, heteronormativity, drag, M2F) to their definitions and then discussing what we learned and what confused us. One of the words was asexuality, and to my surprise, no one had any questions about it!

In most settings, this is definitely not the norm. Even though, as one blogger pointed out, the US is home to more asexuals (or, as some prefer to be called, aces) than it is to Muslims, breast-cancer survivors, and Yale graduates, asexuality is not on most people’s radars. Even those within the LGBT community are sometimes unaware of asexuality as an orientation — indeed, the “A” in LGBTQIA+ more often stands for “ally” than “ace.” Thus, Asexual Awareness Week (this year, October 26–November 1) occurs at the end of LGBT History Month. Today, I’m going to sketch out the ways the conversations I see happening inside the asexual community might shape the queer theory of the future.

Only a handful of scholars in the humanities are doing research on asexuality studies.1 Nevertheless, the language of asexuality as it exists in the everyday praxis of aces has been invaluable to helping me reconsider the ways we think about desire and relationships in texts. Because asexuality — that is, the absence of sexual attraction — does not preclude the formation of other attractions, aces have developed a vocabulary set to describe those experiences. They distinguish between sexual, romantic, affective (“friendly”), and aesthetic attraction, and the different conditions under which these occur and the objects that these take. For instance, “homoromantic” describes someone who falls in love with those of their same sex or gender; a “demiromantic” is someone who falls in love only after a long friendship; an “aromantic” doesn’t fall in love, but might desire intense friendship.2

These desires are not new, and certainly aren’t limited to aces: John Henry Newman’s romantic friendships look very much like the intimate relationships of a homoromantic ace, but the chaste “seraphick love” that John Evelyn and Mary Godolphin shared in the seventeenth century could be conceived of as a queerplatonic relationship of two otherwise sexual people. What is new is the way these words examine phenomena whose existence and uniformity have been taken for granted.

Sometimes, the impulse to name certain desires can overwhelm the desires themselves, but what I think these concepts highlight is the plurality of ways in which people form attractions and desires, and that their objects need not be so neatly aligned. For instance, considering the ways in which Doyle’s John Watson might be simultaneously heterosexual (marrying and having a child by Mary Morstan) and homoromantic (in romantic love with Sherlock Holmes) helps us to grasp how a person can desire two objects in different, non-competing ways. In a way, asexuality has done for romance and sexuality what Judith Butler has done for gender and sex, by uncoupling one from the other (pun intended).

But the asexual community, of course, is not without its controversies. Some people don’t think that asexuality should be lumped into the LGBTQ+ “alphabet soup” because it’s technically not a sexual orientation but rather a not-sexual orientation. This, I think, ignores the great potential for intersectional solidarity, as homoromantic and trans* aces face oppressions that are very similar to those faced by their allosexual counterparts, and heteronormativity limits the experiences of sexual nonconformists indiscriminately.

Some have also criticized how white the movement is, with writers of color like Alok Vaid-Menon describing how to claim asexuality as an identity feels like a betrayal of their race. Some identity communities have long been de-sexualized as a means of discipline and disenfranchisement. Thus, self-describing as asexual plays into these enduring stereotypes, which certainly need dismantling. The asexuality leadership has been surprisingly self-reflexive about how race and gender authorizes (or fails to authorize) the perceived legitimacy of certain sexual orientations. At the same time, however, it’s no less important for us to question those structures that make sexuality compulsory, while we remain sex-positive.

I think the definition that we had to match at training put it best: “Each asexual person experiences things like relationships, attraction, and arousal somewhat differently.” Just delete “asexual” and you’ll have described everyone. As queer studies develops, we’re thinking more plurally to account for the many and colorful ways that our experiences and identities intersect, shaping our selfhoods and our positions in our communities.


Notes

  1. NWSA’s Asexuality Studies Interest Group and the conference panels it has coordinated has been my primary source for asexuality studies in the humanities.
  2. The Huffington Post put together a handy simplified infographic to depict this.

Ashley O’Mara is a first-year PhD student and University Fellow in the English department. She studies Ignatian imagination and representations of sacred femininity in Early Modern poetry. In her free time, she writes creative nonfiction and reads BBC Sherlock fanfic “for research.”

 

Queering LGBT History: The Case of Sherlock Holmes Fanfic

This summer, I fell for BBC’s “Sherlock” hard1 — hard enough to drive me back to fanfic. Fanfic has grown up in the past decade: it now has activists, “aca-fans” (academic fans), and copyright lawyers, and a nonprofit defending artists’ rights to disseminate transformative works, including fiction. My casual intention to fill the wait till next season with fanfic rapidly developed into academic fascination, especially because I discovered that its writers are challenging traditional notions of sexuality and narrative in ways that mass media and even academia aren’t.

In fact, I’d like to suggest that some of the problems about LGBT historiography I discussed last week could be mitigated by our adopting a transformative fiction philosophy. Allow me to map the landscape of queer fanfic, using Sherlock as an example, before I argue that point.

Sherlock fans have been writing fanfic ever since Arthur Conan Doyle (or ACD, as fanfic writers call him) was still writing. Anne Jamison, an English and fan-culture scholar, has described the output of the Sherlock fandom over the past century as essentially transformative works. This includes not just unpublished fanfic but also myriad films, novels, and TV programs, because they all transform the canonical ACD stories, in form and content, with a fan’s devotion to “writing that continues, interrupts, reimagines, or just riffs on stories and characters other people have already written about.”2

The genealogy of fanfic for BBC’s Sherlock is particularly rich for my interest in transformative fiction, because it’s a nesting doll of referentiality. BBC Sherlock fic riffs on Moffat and Gatiss’s twenty-first century reincarnation of Sherlock, which itself riffs on ACD’s Victorian Sherlock and the many twentieth-century reincarnations which the program’s creators have declared canonized.3 Fic writer A.J. Hall, as Jamison points out, can make reference to BBC’s Sherlock, ACD’s Sherlock, and a 1950’s “fan-authored pastiche” Sherlock all in one fic4 — yet no one would mistake that fic for any of its source texts.

This is the difference between “canon” and what fans call “headcanon.” Canon is the Ur-text, a status to which fan writers make no claim of aspiring. There is a certain playful value attached to incorporating elements from canon (Sherlock’s affinity for bees shows up in many fics, as well as the TV program), but these nods exist within “headcanon” — a fan’s personal parallel world(s). “Headcanon” exists alongside “canon,” depending upon the source for basic inspiration (usually its characters) but freely recreating the source in a conscious departure from it.

Fans use these parallel worlds to explore what could have been or might be, especially as regards sexualities that have not found mainstream representation. There is no conclusive literary evidence that ACD conceived of his Sherlock and John as “homosexual”; their relationship presents as a romantic friendship, although those were going out of fashion when he was writing. Likewise, despite queerbaiting, Moffat insists that his Sherlock is not gay, let alone ace. In fanfic, however, literally any interpretation goes.

Myriad fanfic categorizing tags allow readers to find what version of Sherlock’s sexuality appeals to them: gay “Johnlock” and asexual!Sherlock/bisexual!John cover some of the more popular ones, in addition to “OT3s” (One True Threesomes) and a plethora of kinks (the usual varieties, along with furries, fauns, and male pregnancy). While these labels can flatten the contours of the actual uniquely queer praxis within individual works (in the same way that LGBT labels can elide sexual and gender complexities), word-of-mouth reviews of the ways in which a writer imagines two characters negotiating an unprecedented relationship reminds me to keep an open mind about my expectations when see a fic’s tags.

Although authors and readers both have pet theories about what Sherlock’s sexuality “really” is, the fan writer’s explicit self-distancing from “canon” means that a plurality of “headcanons” co-exist on the periphery of the source text. My friend can ship gay Johnlock, I can ship bisexual!John/straight!Mary/asexual!Sherlock, and fanfic satisfies both our preferences without (much) argument between us.

In this way, we might think of historical LGBT icons as personal role models without needing or intending to make claims about their “canonical” sexuality. In my parallel narrative, Joan of Arc is patron of trans* rights and John Henry Newman is patron of asexuality. Neither of these is true in historical reality, and I would never write an essay to “prove” it, but that’s my “headcanon,” and (if I may abuse a neologism) — I’m shipping it!

Next week: a coda in honor of Asexuality Awareness Week


Notes

  1. Apologies for the Reichenfeels.
  2. Anne Jamison, Fic: Why Fanfiction Is Taking Over the World (Dallas: BenBella, 2013), 17.
  3. Ibid. 11.
  4. Ibid. 9.

Ashley O’Mara is a first-year PhD student and University Fellow in the English department. She studies Ignatian imagination and representations of sacred femininity in Early Modern poetry. In her free time, she writes creative nonfiction and reads BBC Sherlock fanfic “for research.”

Overwriting History: “Just Reading” and the Case of John Henry Newman

John Henry Newman has been in my Twitter feed a lot lately. Apparently, when this Victorian cardinal wasn’t writing his Apologia Pro Vita Sua, the nineteenth century’s longest and driest autobiography (sorry, Newman), he wrote religious commentary that some people still find instructive. But it wasn’t all that long ago that Newman was in the news for very different reasons.

Just before his beatification in 2010, gay-rights activists protested the Vatican’s exhumation and relocation of Newman’s remains from the grave he shared with his dear friend, Ambrose St. John, to a chapel for public veneration. Claiming Newman as one of their own, protestors pointed his written command that his body join his friend’s in death: “I wish, with all my heart, to be buried in Father Ambrose St. John’s grave and I give this as my last, my imperative will.”1  To the protesters, the Vatican’s flouting of  this will was a deliberate erasure of what they perceived to be a same-sex relationship from public memory in order to “sanitize” Newman’s biography before sainthood.2

In response, the Vatican commissioned an article that, in reactionary fashion, proceeded to do just that. Ian Ker, a professor and priest, insisted that Newman and St. John’s relationship was purely platonic; that Newman had fought off heterosexual lust as a youth and remained committed to continent celibacy as a priest; and that had Newman been alive today, he would surely have submitted to the wishes of the Church, even if She wanted him reburied away from his dearest friend.3 Ker also would claim that none of Newman’s human remains had been discovered in the exhumation.4 With these four claims, Ker discredited the possibly homosexual nature of Newman’s relationship with St. John at the same time as he called into doubt the enduring existence of the relationship itself.

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The public debate over Newman’s identity—saint or sinner, homosexual or celibate5—in 2010 echoes the public debate over Newman’s identity nearly 150 years earlier. In 1864 Newman responded to the criticism of Charles Kingsley, a popular author and adherent of “Muscular Christianity” who publicly accused Newman of displaying perversion in his converting from the Church of England to the Church of Rome—which, since the Reformation, had in England been popularly associated with sodomizing popes and the Whore of Babylon. Curiously, this exchange has today led to scholarly and non-scholarly speculation about Newman’s sexuality.

When I researched Newman for a class on Victorian life-writing, I was struck by how Newman constantly battled public misinterpretation of his life choices and writings during his lifetime. Hence, his publication of that autobiography—an attempt to definitively set the record straight on his supposed perversity. The way in which readers still endeavor today to read between the lines of his writing for evidence of sexual preference seems to me to unravel his endless work to prevent others from commandeering his self-narrative.

This potential for misinterpretation is a problem with declaring historical figures to be “lesbian/gay/bi/trans*.” To call George Washington Carver simply “gay” erases the whole history of slave castration in the American South. To call Joan of Arc simply “trans*” ignores the complexity of early notions of sartorial gender transmutability. Likewise, searching for Newman’s active (homo?)sexuality overwrites not only his stated longtime personal preference for celibacy but also the value of romantic friendship as a relationship that doesn’t have to be hetero–, homo–, or any kind of– sexual.7

To counter this tendency, queer-studies scholar Sharon Marcus advocates a reading process she terms “just reading” as a means of avoiding falling into the trap of “symptomatic reading”—that is, reading our modern versions of sexualities into earlier texts. For her, “‘just reading’ … attends to what texts make manifest on their surface.”8 The symptomatic readings of Newman’s supporters in 2010 looked for “symptoms” of homo– or heterosexuality in Newman’s life. A just reading would take Newman’s text at its word, perhaps with an eye to understanding what it meant for him, as a Catholic priest in nineteenth-century England, to be a celibate man in a romantic friendship. For this reason, “just reading” helps to do justice to the text, its author, and the full spectrum of queer possibilities across the centuries.

Next week: Queering LGBT history


Notes

    1. Ian Ker, “Oxford and Rome Again,” in John Henry Newman: A Biography, new edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 698.
    2. Robert Verkaik, “Plan to Exhume Cardinal is ‘Homophobic’,” Independent (London), August 25, 2008.
    1. Ian Ker, “Cardinal John Henry Newman’s Exhumation Objectors,” L’Osservatore Romano, September 3, 2008, weekly edition in English.
    1. Ibid., afterword to John Henry Newman: A Biography, new edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 747.
    2. This is their strange set of false dichotomies, not mine.
    1. John Henry Newman, Apologia Pro Vita Sua & Six Sermons, ed. Frank M. Turner (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008), 137.
    1. Sharon Marcus, Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), 3.

Images of John Henry Newman and Ambrose St. John’s grave marker found here: http://blog.cleveland.com/pdextra/2010/09/pope_to_beatify_cardinal_newma.html


Ashley O’Mara is a first-year PhD student and University Fellow in the English department. She studies Ignatian imagination and representations of sacred femininity in Early Modern poetry. In her free time, she writes creative nonfiction and reads BBC Sherlock fanfic “for research.”

Recuperation as Resistance: The Icons of LGBT History

 

As I mentioned last week, the original premise of LGBT history month was to spend some time each day in October learning about a new LGBT “icon,” some from current LGBT history and some from the past (and some who are quite problematic, but more on that next week). “Icon,” to me, is a curious word choice. We use it colloquially to describe media “icons” like Ellen Degeneres or George Takei. We also sometimes talk about “icons” of literature, like Chicana scholar Gloria Anzaldúa, or everybody’s favorite flamboyant Victorian, Oscar Wilde.

Where I’m coming from as a researcher of Early Modern Catholicism, however, “icon” carries a lot more political weight. Intended as representations of holiness, artistic icons of saints offered their venerators a means of more immediate connection with someone from Christian history with whom they could identify. Icons were also instrumental for educating the masses about their faith heritage. These were especially important qualities of Early Modern iconography for English Catholics during the Reformation, when the dominant ideology was bent on either converting or persecuting all the Catholics out of England — literally destroying their icons in the process. Icons thus also served as a cause around which the community rallied.

We can see reflections of this kind of political iconology (so to speak) in the icons of LGBT history. Looking to figures in which one sees oneself, especially famous figures, is a way of seeking support in a hostile setting where one is “different” or unwelcome. A significant purpose of the “It Gets Better” project (conveyed through that modern iconographic medium, YouTube) has been to offer  words of encouragement and affirmation to troubled LGBT youth from people just like them who have suffered for their sexuality but have finally arrived at a “better” place. Likewise, especially during times of persecution, to seek out icons of all orientations from the past and share them with others inside the community builds connections among individuals in the community, and between the community and its past.

matthewshepherd

A key goal of LGBT history month is thus recuperation — locating where heteronormativity has obscured queerness and bringing queer icons back into the light, to resist the status quo which delegitimizes gender and sexual minorities by declaring them modern “corruptions” with no historical precedent. Although visibility in recent decades has actually made things better for LGBT Americans, it’s still not better enough for many, perhaps especially (ironically) in religious communities.

Thus queer religious studies is a growing field with both academic and activist investment. Frederick Roden writes about the Catholic aesthetics of Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper, a Victorian couple who wrote together as Michael Field. Leslie Feinberg names Joan of Arc as one of hir transgender icons for preferring execution over suppressing her desire to wear men’s clothing.1 And many gay Christians will point to David and Jonathan from the Book of Samuel as models for the Christian same-sex married life. This is the process of identification with historical figures that guides much of the everyday practice of LGBT history. David Halperin, who literally wrote the book on How to Do the History of Homosexuality, describes the process by saying, “Identification gets at something, something important: it picks out resemblances, connections, echo effects. Identification is a form of cognition,” requiring “the ability to set aside historical differences in order to focus on historical continuities.”2

Would Michael Field have described themselves as homosexual? Possibly—the word was coming into use towards the end of their career. Would Joan of Arc have considered herself to be trans*? Not likely, at least not in fifteenth-century France—she had different words for describing why it was her God-given prerogative to dress like a man. Were David and Jonathan the original same-sex couple? In a way, maybe, but that’s not really the point. What is important is the possibility of recognizing the queer aspects of these figures and applying them to modern settings. Like Early Modern Catholics saw themselves in the icons of historical saints, we can bridge past and present to make one long LGBT history by seeing ourselves in these queer icons.

Next week: The problems of writing over history


Notes

  1. Leslie Feinberg, Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996), 31.
  2. David Halperin, How to Do the History of Homosexuality (Bristol: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 15.

 

“The Passion of Matthew Shepard”
© William H. McNichols
www.fatherbill.org  866-576-1134 toll free


Ashley O’Mara is a first-year PhD student and University Fellow in the English department. She studies Ignatian imagination and representations of sacred femininity in Early Modern poetry. In her free time, she writes creative nonfiction and reads BBC Sherlock fanfic “for research.”

 

A History of LGBT History

 

October is a beautiful month. My favorite bike trail smells like toast, crumbly apple crisp becomes a perfect midterm snack, and the trees are a rainbow of fire. When I walk past the striated maple on my way from class, I secretly like to think that maybe this is why October is LGBT history month.

I know the real history of LGBT history month, of course. First observed in 1994, these thirty-one days of celebration, reflection, and activism grew out of National Coming Out Day, which takes place every year on October 11. October 11 is itself the anniversary of the 1987 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. LGBT history month itself, then, has an illustrious history.

Appropriately, one of the demands of the later 1993 March on Washington was for LGBT visibility in school curricula — a sort of collective “coming out” for LGBT history. To this end, a Missouri teacher named Rodney Wilson conceived of LGBT history month as a way to learn about gay and lesbian figures from our recent and distant past. Since then, schools and communities have expanded the scope of the month to include more gender and sexual minorities and more events like lectures, talent shows, and safer-spaces workshops. At its core, however, LGBT history month remains invested in its name: recovering and creating a history authored by and for sexual minorities.

In many ways, this is still important work for our present. In even recent history, sexual minorities had to live off the radar of mainstream, heteronormative society. This resulted in an occlusion of the rich history of sexual nonconformity, which its detractors took advantage of. As queer-studies scholar Elizabeth Freeman describes it, “since sexual identity emerged as a concept, gays and lesbians have been figured as having no past: no childhood, no origin or precedent in nature, no family traditions or legends, and, crucially, no history as a distinct people.”1 Erasure has been one of the key weapons that dominating forces has historically wielded against minorities of all kinds. This is one reason why the incorporation of LGBT history into school curricula remains controversial. Thus, rediscovering LGBT history — filling in the blanks that heteronormativity has generated by writing sexual minorities out of the general history — is an act of resistance and a reassertion of value.

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But there is reason for skepticism about LGBT history from within the queer community, too. The idea that we can have an LGBT “history,” in which we can trace queer “ancestors,” buys into a heteronormative concept of time — that is, linear, reproductive time. There is also the problem of identifying figures from centuries past as “gay” or “lesbian”: not only does doing so efface one’s right to self-determination and self-identification, but it also erases the variety of erotic desires that exist outside the LGBT acronym — modes of desire which pre-date the concept of homosexuality, and sexual identity itself.

Over the next few weeks, I will look at how we “do” LGBT and queer histories (and what’s the difference) from a literary perspective: in particular, what it means to (re)construct a queer history, and the advantages and pitfalls of identifying queer figures in literary history. My examples will come especially from English literary history, since that is where my doctoral research is focused, but I hope that this discussion will illuminate conversations in other literary and non-literary fields. I’ll also consider the ways in which we can locate queer histories within the past while remaining responsible to individual actors in that history.

By way of analogy, I know that my reading of LGBT history in the trees on campus is factually incorrect, not unlike calling Shakespeare’s rival Christopher Marlowe “gay” is factually incorrect — if only because to Marlowe “gay” described color, dress, joy, pleasure, and not homosexuality. But I wonder if there’s something in the seemingly queer aesthetic of certain literary texts — like my rainbow trees — that can help us appreciate the beautiful depths of LGBT history.

Next week: Recuperation as resistance


Notes

  1. Elizabeth Freeman, introduction to GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies13 (2-3) (2007): 162.

Ashley O’Mara is a first-year PhD student and University Fellow in the English department. She studies Ignatian imagination and representations of sacred femininity in Early Modern poetry. In her free time, she writes creative nonfiction and reads BBC Sherlock fanfic “for research.”